What Is an Heir? Meaning and Types

An heir is someone who can legally receive assets or property from a deceased person’s estate if that person dies without a will or trust, called dying intestate. If you die intestate, a probate court will use state law to determine who your heirs are and how to distribute your assets

Cornell Law School. Heir. Accessed Nov 7, 2023.


Laws vary by state, but generally, the closest family members, called next of kin, are given property or assets first and receive higher amounts. For example, your spouse usually gets the majority of your estate, followed by your children, then your surviving parents and so on.

If you have established a will or trust, you can name who your heirs will be and what they will inherit by naming beneficiaries.

There are several types of heirs with different legal entitlements.

  • Heir apparent: Someone who is guaranteed to inherit property from a deceased person if they die without a will.

  • Presumptive heir: Someone who is expected to inherit property from a deceased person but could have their right to inherit defeated legally. For example, if another child is born or adopted before the presumptive heir dies, they may inherit the property instead. However, this typically only applies to monarchy, as state succession laws treat siblings equally in probate.

  • Adoptive heir: Someone who is legally adopted and has the same inheritance rights as biological children. This means that if an adoptive parent dies without a will, their adoptive child will inherit from them just like a biological child would.

  • Collateral heir: A blood relative, but not a direct descendant like a child, grandchild or great-grandchild. Collateral heirs include surviving parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and so on down the family tree.

Though the term “heir” typically refers to someone who receives property without a will in place, you can legally designate an heir’s inheritance by naming them as a beneficiary in a will, trust or other estate planning tool. Here’s how:

  1. Catalog your property and assets to account for everything you want to pass down. An appraisal may help determine the value of your assets.

  2. Identify family members and friends you want to receive your assets. Consider who may be financially impacted by your death, and who would benefit most from your property.

  3. Name your heirs in a will or trust with an estate planning attorney, using an online will-writing service or with a DIY template. Use full legal names and birth dates in order to avoid future confusion. You can typically name alternate beneficiaries as a backup.

The main difference between a beneficiary and an heir is that you name beneficiaries in a will or estate document, while heirs have the right to inherit property with or without a will and are named by a probate court.

You can name friends, charities and trusts as beneficiaries in your estate plan, while a court follows intestacy laws to distribute property and can’t give your assets to nonrelatives.

What happens if I don’t name an heir?

If you don’t formally name an heir or beneficiary in your will or die intestate, the courts will name your heirs and determine how your assets are divided among them. In certain states, like Texas, your loved ones might need to go through an application to determine heirship.

If you don’t name an heir, have no will and no living relatives, your property will be distributed to the state in a process called escheat

Cornell Law School. Escheat. Accessed Nov 7, 2023.


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